August 2, 2005

Over 1,800... and counting

Yesterday on BART I sat in the only empty seat left, near the middle of the car, next to a guy who looked like he maybe was on his way to work at a house-painting job. He had a dirty, old baseball cap, a scrungy white tee shirt, and dirty, well-worn jeans. His face was stubble-covered, and he smiled at me with bleary eyes and crooked teeth and a stink of something that maybe was rum.

As I sat down next to him, he held his hand out and said, "My son just got back from Iraq." I shook his hand, smiled back. "That's great," I said. I asked how long he was back for. Just a couple weeks, then he's going to some fort in Texas or the Carolinas or somewhere east. After a year there, he's scheduled to deploy to Afghanistan. The pride shone in this guy's voice, his smile, his bleary, drunken, teary eyes. He'd also just seen his 10-month-old granddaughter for the first time. He was truly a happy man.

It's strange sitting next to a stereotype straight out of a movie. This guy, Mike, told me that he'd called his boss to say that a bus had broken down and he couldn't get to work; his boss knew that Mike had been drunk the night before and there was no broken down bus. His boss had recently remarked that every day Mike missed work was a Monday. At one point Mike called a friend on his cell phone and said, "I ran into my son last night, he's been back ten days" before the phone dropped the signal. This was clearly a man who did not think much of himself, who had never aspired to much, who was content getting drunk every weekend and just holding down a menial job. But he was also a man who knew he'd done something right because his soldier son was back from war, home to a growing family... and was likely to go back to war in a year's time.

Later yesterday I read an op-ed column saying that it's easy to send others off to war, to have others sacrifice for war. There is no "moral cost" to the people making the decisions in their halls of marble and tapestry and granite. The average, middle-class and upper-crust American does not personally know anyone in harm's way in Iraq or Afghanistan, does not have to sacrifice job or family or even money to support the war. Even the $200 billion spent on it so far, and the $1 billion a week Iraq is costing US taxpayers is like raising the temperature one degree on a 90-degree day, or like having your tomato garden yeild only 500 tomatoes instead of 501--we just don't notice any cost or pain or sacrifice because we are not asked to make any.

It's easy to support a war, to say "we'll do whatever it takes," if all it takes is to stick a yellow magnet on your car and put a flag out on July 4th. With over 250,000 different individuals having cycled through Iraq, it is perhaps an amazing statistic that only 1,800 have died and some 10,000 have been maimed or seriously wounded. Mike's son is lucky not to be among those. Other daughters-in-law, other baby granddaughters, are not so lucky--their moms or dads are dead, forever. Or perhaps they are missing a leg and have to make do with virtually no support from the government that sent them into danger.

When Mike got off at his stop, though, I said, "Right on" to his parting delivery of "God bless America, huh?" The people making the real sacrifices are hidden, silent, and invisible. It will always be easy for the rest of us to support a war when we have no cost associated with saying, "Bring 'em on."

1 comment:

Gene said...

Good stuff, Pete. I know a number of young men who have been in Iraq, would have been in Iraq, or will be in Iraq. The "would have been" was tough for him, since he was prepared to become a Marine, but it was the answer to prayers for many of us who know him. Collapsed during a training exercise, they determined he had a heart problem, and home he came.